Wednesday, 30 November 2011

TAXIDERMIED - The Art of Roman Dirge

Roman Dirge is an American artist and magician who is best known as the man behind the uniquely macabre comic book series Lenore, the cute little dead girl, which features the adventures of his own pale and humorous -- but decidedly deceased -- pre-school creation, who “lives” with some of her oddball friends in the fictional town of Nevermore. This was a character originally inspired by the famous Edgar Allan Poe poem, which appeared first in Xenophobe magazine in 1992; since that time, the cartoon cadaver has gone on to star not only in two of her own comics series, but in a run of flash animated shorts, originally made for Sony’s ScreenBlast website in 2002.
Lenore, as the most popular manifestation of Dirge’s output, best sums up the distinctive, deliciously twisted ethos that can be found interred deep at the core of all of his work, and which has now been showcased in all its morbid glory in TAXIDERMIED: The Art of Roman Dirge -- a beautifully produced art book folio-style overview collection, recently published by Titan Books. The book displays its author’s unusual sensibility across 112 entrancing pages full of bizarre wonders and anxiety-inducing humours, unveiling an oeuvre which, rather like the early sketches of Tim Burton or the nightmare animations of The Brothers Quay, worships at the shrine of misplaced oddity and incongruous found objects. Dirge’s work revivifies the dusty careworn strangeness of faded, velvet-lined gothic Victoriana, and operates in the seldom visited twilight hinterland where an appreciation of shallow ‘cuteness’ becomes entwined with a deep love of all things weird -- with the dark, the exotic and the vaguely disturbing, in a manner that often leaves it difficult to tell where one category ends and another begins.

This lavish hardback collection is split into five broad sections surrounding the main body of work -- which consists of beautiful reproductions obtained from a selection of the artist’s astonishingly detailed full-colour images and portraits -- and including quick jottings, sketches and Lenore-style cartoon work; but all of the material shares the same rich dark sense of humour while embodying Dirge’s on-going obsession with taxidermy and images of listless waxwork-like cadavers fresh from the mortuary slab. This perennial thematic obsession is also joined by frequent representations of freakish nightmare bird creatures, staring out dead-eyed from an ornately painted vision of hell; also ossified remains join up with other oddments and random bric-a-brac, becoming like puppet living things; and then there are the pale, hollow-eyed tattooed Goth girls with jet black hair, Marlene Dietrich’s cheekbones and blood-red rosebud lips (there are a lot of those!).

The lines between the living and the dead; between inanimate objects and the viscera of the fleshily still  living, are frequently being blurred, broken and disposed of in this work, It is  always quite clear that Dirge’s muse emerges from the land of dreams and unconscious motivators: many of the images are accompanied with a commentary that states their initial inspiration as having come from a dream, and Dirge claims in the introduction that he often doesn’t quite know what the plan is when he starts out on a piece. Freud’s ever pertinent list of tropes for what constitutes ‘the Uncanny’ in literature (formed from consideration of a short story, The Sand-Man, by the Prussian writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, who himself started with ambitions of being a graphic artist and painter) should be kept in mind when perusing this assembly of unnatural creations.
The opening selections amount to a flashback to previously unseen works rediscovered in Dirge’s old sketchbooks. These early, mostly black & white pencil sketches tend to separate out the goulishness and the silliness into discrete compartments: we have the misshapen, offbeat, amusing animal pictures, such as the opening image which depicts an upright walking hamster creature (all bloated and evidently finding it difficult to totter on his widely spaced hind legs); while later, there’s a pencil-drawn and shaded portrait of a goofy grinning giraffe with a love-heart necklace around its neck. This section ends with assorted hastily scribbled and coloured-in wide-eyed cat-like cartoon creations; but before them there’s also an elf, and a depressed-looking android, and a boy with a pumpkin head sitting on top of a zombie-like rock monster -- his yawning cave-formed mouth full of stalactite teeth. This opening section also finds room for some slightly more macabre sketches that point the way to the full-on nightmare surrealism of the main body of the book: a golem-inspired ghoul with half his head missing, which has been replaced by a satellite antenna; a ’demon’ that looks more like something assembled from bits of unravelling string and the shattered, dug-up skull of some long extinct still-born atrocity – all held together on a collapsible fold-out metal frame that emerges improbably from a pair of belted baggy trousers.
"Nurse Monster What Gives Candy To A Spider Thing In A Drawer"
The ‘Artwork’ section (the one that takes up most of the book) is where the twisted Dirge sensibility really kicks in. Here we have the full colour portraits, painted from initial pencil drawings, mostly either based on similar looking skinny pale Goth women with tattoos, or a Johnny Depp-like male cartoon figure (possibly an avatar for the artist himself), only with distorted features and a bulbous pumpkin-like head which sits atop a spindly body that’s clad in funeral director’s garb (one of the portraits incarnates him as Jack the Ripper). There are the standard images of zombies here, of course; the most striking of which features a little Girl Guide zombie with a Princess Lea haircut, clutching at a box of cookies while blackbirds flit around a white picket fence, pecking at her flesh as it unravels in veiny string-like strands. An appreciation of the Victorian macabre that surrounds the Jack the Ripper case emerges most strikingly in an image that also begins to illustrate the artist’s warped sense of the absurd and the kitsch: a piece entitled  Dear Boss features a figure in a seated pose that mimics the faded, gloomy looking aesthetic of the Victorian era daguerreotype, except that the figure is, as the commentary explains, intended as a composite of all of Jack the Ripper’s female victims: an absurd scar-stitched mannequin, half rag doll, half death mask of the formerly living. The disturbing image plays on the Victorian vogue for memento mori portraits of loved ones taken in death, but Dirge adds his own incongruously bizarre take on the genre by seating a ridiculous cartoon bear in the taxidermied corpse’s lap!
Odd little creatures tend to turn up in the various nooks and crannies of these paintings, many of which often display an affinity with the offbeat surrealism of David Lynch’s midnight movie favourite Eraserhead. Nurse Monster What Gives Candy To A Spider Thing In A Drawer feels like typical early Lynch weirdness what with its central crab-faced, tentacled figure, seen perched atop a set of drawers from which a hairy tarantula ‘thing’ is attempting to emerge -- but it is also typically Dirge-like in that the picture includes a miniaturised fluffy canine with a feather for a tale, for no apparent reason balanced precariously upon some sort of scientific apparatus of the artist’s own devising on the right of the image. One painting, Mary Toft And The Rabbit Babies, refers to a little-known 1726 curiosity -- also written about by Emma Donoghue in her book of short fictions based on ‘true’ stories, The Woman Who Gave Birth To Rabbits -- in which a Surrey woman managed to fool doctors in early Georgian England into believing that she really had given birth to rabbits! The case was satirised at the time by William Hogarth in his print Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism, but Dirge’s painting adds whimsical zombie nurses to the mix and has them engaged in a desperate struggle to control the flow of squealing little bunnies that arrive attached to multiple frayed, string-like strands of umbilical cord -- while one of the new-borns has chanced to find himself perched on top of his ‘mother’s’ head.

Neglected cuddly toys and strange fluffy proto-animals sit side by side with Dirge’s pet hate from the animal world: birds. ‘I actually hate birds but I find myself compelled to draw them,’ says the artist, and in this section they appear often in the background and in almost naturalistic form (except for the two-headed raven, shown perched on a gnarled tree branch amid its bowery -- which is topped off with a miniaturised skull), but in the section entitled ‘Monsters’ Dirge’s demons come out to play in even more grotesque a form, and birds are here very often the template for the artist’s queasiest nightmares. A lot of his monster portraits exist at the interface between a sort of cartoon whimsy and a Gothic tinged carnival grotesque: his creatures look welded or glued together from bits of disparate old skull or carapace, crumbling toys or other found objects; some of them look to be part skeleton and part stitched on feather and fur.

This is particularly the case with the artist’s ‘devil’ birds, which often seem to be wearing skull masks, as though they were all members of some secret satanic society that worships an inscrutable form of evil. The dust cover image of the book – from a work called Serpentese -- is meant to be Dirge’s vision of a creature that might prey on these avian horrors, but if anything the cure -- with its long, coiling, slithery snake body, attached to a wolfish skull with a slug oozing from one eye socket and a mangy horse’s mane trailing from its crown (which is itself home to some tattered-looking bird prisoners) -- is even more unpleasant than the disease!

Evocative highlights of this section include Chinese Dress: a lushly rendered Daliesque painting of a woman in a red Chinese dress, seated with a disturbingly elaborate and incongruous bird-insect skull where her face should be and several of Dirge’s strange, semi-cartoon fictional animals at her side or across her lap. Also, Giants is a striking image given a double page spread: creatures that look like colossal robot animal toys, apparently fighting for possession of a ripped-out heart in a fairy-tale city in which little pale-skinned Dirge avatars stand and gawp at the raging spectacle above their heads in the clouds. It’s clear that the areas that interest the artist most intersect with the world of fairy tales, so the ‘Scarytales’ section is an inevitable inclusion and is home to a zombie version of Disney’s design for Pinocchio, an equally sallow looking Snow White and, even more inevitably, the Dirge take on Alice in Wonderland. The book then winds down with a collection of jokey and lovingly garish cartoons in the section called ‘Funny Bones’: it’s a vehicle for some bad jokes and generally bad taste humour, including amongst the gags a ‘Missing’ poster rendered for a cute cartoon cat called Miss Puddles -- with an artist rendition of what puddles ‘may’ look like now: a squished roadside mess!

Titan have put together a great cross section of the artist’s work for this edition and it is all presented in a sumptuous hardback volume with high quality paper (dimensions: 310 x 224mm) that fully does justice to the colourful, baroque weirdness that is the art of Roman Dirge.
RATING: 4 /5
Published by Titan Books (2011)
Find out more about Roman Dirge and his work at

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